On Dialogue

Black and white picture of handwritten dialogue by Malin JamesI posted a story on my other site yesterday that reminded me how much I love writing dialogue. A lot of my stories are fairly minimalistic, with people saying less than they strictly have to. It’s as much about what’s happening in the gaps as it is about what’s being said.

But yesterday’s story was the opposite – nearly all dialogue, driven by a comfortable, natural patter between two sisters. It was an off-the-cuff thing and it felt great. It also reinforced something that I’ve always known about myself as a writer – that my writing is informed by acting in all kinds of subtle ways.

I have no formal training as a writer. I taught myself how to deconstruct and write stories over the course of twenty years, two Master’s Degrees and lots and lots of books – good books, bad books and books I can’t even remember having read. What I do have is extensive acting training and experience working with characters on stage.

Which is why so much of my writing is character driven. There’s always a plot (because without plot, it’s a moment, not a story), but the plots are almost always fueled by a character’s internal drives and motivations, rather than external forces. This will likely change at some point because a person’s writing is almost never fixed. Like aspects of any other creative discipline, a writer’s style and voice tend to evolve over time (so long as the writer lets them).

What I don’t imagine changing is that I will always be primarily interested in the people I’m writing about, (as opposed to concepts etc). Because for me they are people – not little objects I’ve constructed – so it’s natural for me to want get into their heads and dig around. That’s where all the acting comes in handy. I analyzed and interpreted other people’s characters, from Shakespeare to Chekov, for years, so playing with my own characters is like working in a mental playground. And a natural extension of that is writing dialogue.

No one sounds the same. Even two people, raised in the same household, in the same place with all of the same frames of reference sound different because, in the end, no matter how similar they are, they are two different people. Ask any set of twins. But rather than consciously trying to make the two sisters in yesterday’s story sound different, I let their differences play themselves out.

One sister is sexually experienced and up for anything. The other isn’t so sure. So, how would a conversation about a new boyfriend’s fetish go down, especially if it happened over drinks with a hot bartender listening in?

So, you take your two people and you set them down in a context, and then you just let them talk. I know that sounds ridiculous and kind of woo-woo, but I honestly believe that good dialogue comes from being impulsive, open and trusting your gut.

That’s not necessarily the case with all things in narrative. Plot needs conscious attention because it needs to make sense (unless your Thomas Pynchon, whom I can’t stand). Other elements, however, need your conscious attention to get out of the way so your subconscious attention can go to town.

characters have an agenda because your brain has a story to tell, and sometimes you’re only 10% aware of what that story actually is. The characters are the subconscious dynamos that drive whatever that story is, so when you write dialogue without trying to consciously mold it, you’re allowing your brain to tell you the story in the voices of the characters who inhabit it.

Good dialogue isn’t “dialogue” at all. It’s a conversation. All you need is a (really) basic understanding of who’s talking, why and where, and you’re off. Sometimes nothing comes of it, but sometimes something does, and when it does, when your characters surprise you by sounding like people, not like extensions of yourself, you know you’ve written dialogue that works.

I know this sort of approach isn’t right for everyone because every writer is different. I write to find out what I’m trying to say so an instinctive approach to dialogue is natural for me. For writers who work in a more structured fashion, what I just described would probably drive them nuts. The bottom line is that, no matter how you work, dialogue should slip into the reader’s head. You want your reader to hear what’s being said, rather than think, “wow, that’s great dialogue!” Acting is just the influence that helps  me get there.

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The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

GalenPikeCoverOn Stories that Undermine Assumptions

Carys Davies’s second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, is one of those books that I raced through in one go, and then went back and read more slowly over the course of the week. Granted, this book is short (131 pages) so my all-in-one-go read isn’t that impressive. That said, the fact that it hooked me that hard is.

This collection gave me that weird, awesome, anxious feeling that you sometimes get when there are too many choices on a menu. It’s exciting, and the thing that makes it exciting is really cool and kind of rare – every single story in The Redemption of Galen Pike sets up an expectation and then thoroughly subverts it.

This is a tricky one to keep spoiler-free, so I’m going to focus on just one of the stories and hopefully not spoil too much. “Wicked Fairy” is one of the quieter stories in the collection. While they all defy expectation differently, “The Wicked Fairy” does it with a sort of ironic silliness that carries you through, even though you know how it’s going to end.

We open with the narrator, a guy named Lenny, noticing a girl at a wedding. She’s dark and thin and she’s carrying a pie. Over the course of the next two pages, Davies creates a sort of Atwoodian (I’m totally making that a word) dystopia, wherein this girl with the pie is a silent, unnoticed threat. Except that Lenny notices. He notices but doesn’t say anything, not even when the voice in his head screams “LOOK OUT DON!!! THERE’S A GIRL HERE WITH A PIE!!!!”

When she finally throws the pie, its impact on Don’s face reads like a gunshot, and you’re left with the image of social horror – a horrified crowd and a pie-covered groom and a dazed, empty-handed girl, standing there as if she’s shot him.

I love what Davies does with this. In films, this kind of scene usually unfolds in slow motion and ends in an assassination. So what’s Davies doing when she assigns all of those JFK cues to a jilted girl with a pie? She’s playing two things off each other.

The first is the seriousness of the jilted girl’s feelings. She wants to hurt Don and she’s going to do it…with a lovingly described cream pie. And that pie is the opposite of serious.

In playing those two things off each other, Davies sets up a situational dissonance ie: the is really serious!…but it’s a pie.  The pie itself is the subversion of an expectation – one that involves real violence and tragedy. And yet, the pie is never treated as anything but a very real threat. So, in the world of the story, she might as well have pulled a knife.

So, what’s the point? Here’s how I read it. In subverting the seriosity of a familiar situation, Davies is implying that pie or no pie, the girl’s hurt is a powerful force. The fact that she doesn’t actually hurt him is beside the point. Within the context of the narrative, the social damage she’s caused is equally violent, which makes it a great commentary on the importance people place on big, elaborate weddings, rigid social structures and the power of public humiliation. All that from subverting one assumption – oh, no! She has a gun! with a different, equally threatening (in the story’s context) reality – oh no! She has a pie!

I’ll be honest, I laughed both times I read “The Wicked Fairy” because, for all that geeky analysis, it really is funny. As one of the lightest pieces in the collection, it did a great job of quietly satirizing all sorts of things while giving the reader a bit of a break. Some of the other stories are beautiful, powerful heartbreakers, all of which are so worth reading. In fact, however, you end up reading it, this collection is very much worth reading.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

On Narrative Flow

For my first official post on Reading Like a Writer, I want to talk about Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk.

I almost called this post “In Praise of Narrative Flow” because that’s what initially pulled me into H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald’s crazy-natural use of narrative flow.

But before I get into that, I should say up front that I kind of loved everything about this book. In a very personal way, it was exactly the right read at exactly the right time, so I can honestly say without any reservation that it’ll probably be one of my favorite books of 2016.

Now, to get back to narrative flow. What I mean by narrative flow is how the writer’s use of pacing, rhythm and execution, and how they interact with the reader. Here’s an example from Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”:

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

Side Note: If you haven’t read Hemingway, goddamn, check out his short stories. I’m not a huge fan of his novels, but his short stories are a-maze-ing. He really was a master of the form.

So, narrative flow. This quote captures the tone of the story – staccato, disjointed and ambiguous. Things are said in this story through what is not said – the way the woman looks at the girl, the way the girl is looking off, the way the hills seem separate from the land. The flow is a little choppy, a little disorienting and that’s perfect because it mirrors the heat of the day and the girl’s state of mind. In this case, the narrative flow feeds into the story’s overall tone. It’s brilliant.

Helen Macdonald does something equally brilliant in H is for Hawk. Narrative flow is important regardless of what kind of narrative it is – fiction or nonfiction, short or long. Whereas Hemingway used flow to give his short story a visceral impact, Macdonald uses it to a different effect – she weaves a tapestry with it so the reader becomes wrapped in her grieving state of mind. And yet, the hawk remains firm and clear in the middle of her grief. The hawk is always the focal point.

The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.

Macdonald’s imagery is threaded through her prose. It’s sensory and very specific. It also accurately reflects how thoroughly the hawk will come to define her life for a time. There are a million gorgeous quotes I could pull from this book, but they all have this quality – the prose is packed with more than words. Expand that out to the entire book and you get narrative flow.

There are two main threads in H is for Hawk and I’ll admit that, at first, I didn’t quite buy into one of them. In addition to her own autobiography of grief, Macdonald weaves in a mini-biography of T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, as well as, (more importantly for this book), The Goshawk, an account of his failed attempt to train a hawk. In the beginning, the White chapters felt a bit strange and intrusive. But slowly, they began to make sense. Slowly, they begin to reflect Macdonald’s fears and isolation as she trains her own goshawk, Mabel. The White chapters become critical to understanding the depth of Macdonald’s grief and how falconry becomes a metaphor for the process of healing.

They also act as a counterpoint to her relationship to her own hawk. White botched his hawk’s training horribly. Macdonald, by comparison, is hyper-aware of the bird, to the point that she begins to over-identify. As she does, the flow becomes leaner, tighter, and narrower, almost reflecting the pinpointed focus of the bird she’s training. Then, as the training progresses and she processes her grief, the focus slowly expands. The flow loosens. Macdonald’s narrative develops a rhythm that underscores her emotional experience. That alone helped me, as the reader, to connect to the book on a basic, instinctive level – it bypassed my brain and hit my emotions, which for me is where it counts.

And that’s the power of narrative flow – it’s a way to by-pass the reader’s logic and burrow under their skin. I’m sure there are other names for it, but that’s essentially how I think of the structural rhythm of a book. Some writers engineer it ahead of time, but that almost never works for me. When I write, the flow kind of just happens in the first draft. Then I hone it through revision and edits. Macdonald’s narrative rhythm feels so natural, so deeply tied to the text, that I wonder how much of it was engineered and how much of it just happened. If I’m ever lucky enough to talk to her someday, I would love to ask.

Reading Like a Writer

Black and white photograph of a woman looking out from a clock tower for Reading Like a Writer post by Malin JamesI’ve been thinking about how I want to approach writing about books. I used to write fairly standard reviews and that was fine but, honestly, there are so many good review blogs at this point that adding my opinion doesn’t feel particularly necessary. I can talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a book, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And who knows, maybe there is nothing new to bring, but I want to try.

The fact of the matter is that my opinions aren’t unique – they’re personal and informed by my experiences – but so are everyone else’s. Generally speaking, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight for a person who isn’t me. That’s why I’m going to avoid the temptation of giving a general opinion and focus on something specific instead, something informed by the way I read.

The way I read has changed a great deal over the years. I used to read purely for entertainment. Then catharsis. Then curiosity. Then entertainment again. At this point, I read all across the board for a lot of reasons and, while I’m attracted to a different kind of book than I used to be (more on that in a post of its own) the fact is that I read widely from all sorts of genres and styles for all kinds of reasons. The only through-line in my reading is that I have an agenda. In addition to reading because I love to read, I read to become a better writer.

Even when a story has completely gobbled me up, part of my brain is whirring away, deconstructing and noticing and trying to figure things out. I love the craft of writing. I love technical elegance and subtle, inventive structures. I love the little mechanisms that make, or fail to make, a piece work. Sort of like a person who disassembles clocks, I love to dissect stories to see how they tick.

I’ve always done this to some degree, but the habit got formalized in college and grad school when I started applying theory to what I read. Later, when I started teaching myself how to write fiction, I applied the same principle. I found writing books that emphasized reading for different aspects of craft, from characterization and structure to pacing and voice. Slowly, I habituated myself to noticing these thing regardless of what I’m reading. That was more than twelve years ago, and that anatomical approach is just how I read now.

That’s why I talked about the structure Sarah Waters used in Night Watch and noticed the different way Muriel Spark manipulates the reader in The Driver’s Seat. It’s why I love Helen Macdonald’s use of a loose narrative style in H is for Hawk (there’s a post coming up on that). It’s not about me being all Miss Fancy Pants – it’s just the way I enjoy books.

So, rather than blog my general opinion, as scintillating as it may be, I’m going to write about the book from a writer’s perspective, hopefully in a way that isn’t totally boring for non-writers too. If nothing else, it’ll give me a chance to talk about two of the things I love most – stories and how they’re made.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

night_watch_318x500
On Structure and Chronology

There aren’t many writers I trust completely, but Sarah Waters is one of them. Regardless of where she takes me, I know she’ll get me there and back safely, whether it’s a Victorian insane asylum or an ambiguously creepy manor house post-WWI. In fact, her writing is pretty much guaranteed to do three things for me:

1. Emotionally affect me, often in very uncomfortable ways.

2. Challenge my expectations.

3. Teach me how to be a better writer.

Her fourth novel, The Night Watch, which has been sitting on my shelf since 2006, (I was saving it for a rainy day), does all three things so well that it may replace Affinity as my favorite of her books.

What surprised me most about The Night Watch was the structure. I know that doesn’t sound super exciting, but everything about it, from plot to characters, feels heightened because of it.

Rather than adhering to a standard, chronological structure, the narrative unfolds in reverse, starting in 1947 and moving backward through to 1941. The effect is amazing – events that would have struck me as suspenseful became massively poignant because of structural hindsight. The reader knows what’s coming, but the characters don’t, and yet, Waters balances that readerly omniscience with a lot of unknowns. She opens the novel with a clear picture of the characters’ fates, but you don’t understand the significance of those fates until the very end (or rather, beginning) in 1941. The tension that created anchored me to the book so hard I couldn’t put it down. (That’s where #3 – Teach me how to be a better writer – came in).

The Night Watch is comprised of the seemingly separate stories of three women and one man, but they are, in reality, tightly interwoven, a fact that Waters reveals slowly as their histories unfold. I don’t want to get too deep into how their stories interweave because spoilers would really ruin it, so instead I’ll talk about the characters who touched me most…which is to say, all of them – even the ones who were awfully flawed.

It’s the trick that Sarah Waters always manages to pull – that of putting difficult things in front of you while compelling you to read on. And I was compelled, just as I always am. The characters in The Night Watch ache with love, jealousy, desperation, fear, shame and the longing for things they can’t have. But while there is a lovely sense of hope for some of them, the future, for others, is left opaque, most affectingly, for me, the ambulance driver, Kay.

Kay may win or Kay may lose, but to see her win, Waters would have to allow us to see past the chronology of the book. The fact that we can’t might drive some people nuts, but it made me love the book even more. It underscores the fact that Waters is only giving us a sliver of their lives, which made their difficulties bear even more weight while casting the good in an even more poignant light.

I’m a glutton for that kind of thing, which is why I’m a fan of Sarah Waters. Though it took me ten years to read The Night Watch, I’m glad I waited for that rainy day. As a reader, I brought much more to the table at 38 than I would’ve at 28. That said, I’m going to try not to make it another ten years before I read The Paying Guests.

 

Fiction: Nighthawks

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper view into night time diner for Nighthawks post by Malin James

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. 1942

I wrote this story awhile ago. I’ve always loved the painting that inspired it. In fact, I love most of Hopper’s work. As a very good friend of mine once said that his subjects appear to be lost in their own world. Their faces and postures have an interiority that invites interpretation. I couldn’t help but write this. It’s a very short story, with a serial point of view. In other words, the narrator spends a brief amount of time in each of the  characters’ heads. This drives some readers crazy, (my apologies if you’re one), but I think the convention works for this image. There was no other way to do it, in my book.

Nighthawks

Rose looked at her reflection in the polished mahogany counter. She didn’t look good. The day had caught up to her, stripped her of color and sharpened her face. She dabbed at her lipstick with a napkin. Too red. It looked funny. Rose put the napkin down. She used to like that red. So had Eddie. Eddie had liked that color.

Red, red lips for my red, red, Rose….

Rose’s hand plucked at her earring, her coffee, her locket, before inching over to rest on Rob’s sleeve. She liked the feel of his woolen jacket under her quick, nervous fingers. Nice and warm. Solid. Rob. She shivered. It had been a long day. It was time to go home. She wanted to say that. It’s been a long day. It’s time to go home. But his downcast eyes trapped the words in her mouth. He wasn’t ready yet. She could wait.

Widow at thirty. What a laugh. She smiled at her reflection. She looked bitter and old—not pretty anymore. Her eyes slid to the floor. She didn’t really care. Everyone was dead. Eddie was dead. The baby was dead. Her father—hers and Rob’s—was dead, but that was nothing to cry about. Their father had always been lucky. He was a lucky son-of-a-bitch.

Rose glanced at her brother and cut off the thought, as if Rob could read her mind. He couldn’t. She knew it. Just like she couldn’t read his, but sometimes they got close…sometimes.

It’s been a long day. It’s time to go home.

She looked at his profile, his hawkish face, and quietly looked away.

Rose knew the dead were lucky, but Rob didn’t need to hear it. He’d done enough already. More than she wanted him to. He’d visited her in the hospital and tied pink ribbons around her wrists. He came by or called every day. He worried, she knew. She made him worry.

You worry, honey. You worry too much.

She was tired. It was time to go home.

Rose sighed, a small, shallow breath. Everything was done. This time he’d have nothing to find. Rob…. She was glad they’d spent the whole day. Rose fingered her locket. The gold was warm. It felt soft when she pressed it. There was a picture of Eddie and the baby inside.

She glanced at her brother through her sweep of red hair. Red, red hair. Red, red Rose. Poor Rob. His face looked dark, like a shuttered house. No lights. Locked doors. She could wait. They would sit together in this anonymous place, coffee cold in their cups. When he was ready, he would take her home. She loved him. She could wait.

###

Robert knew Rose was going to try it again. He could read it like newsprint in the lines around her mouth. He missed her smile, her real smile, her cracking, half-cocked grin. He hadn’t seen it in months. Instead he got what she gave him now…pale lips under too much red. Her hand was cold on his arm.

She’d gotten dressed up for their day together, special occasion dressed up—Hayworth hair, her favorite pink dress, she’d even worn perfume. But her bones were sharp beneath her collar. Her wrists were thin and hard. He wished she’d worn a sweater. It was turning cold, too cold for a thin, silk dress.

Why don’t you bring a sweater, Rosy?

No, I’ll be okay.

The second she’d said that, he’d known. That dress, her hair, her too bright face…he’d known exactly what was coming. He didn’t want to know.

He lit a cigarette and let it burn. Tiny column of ash. Then he lit another. Beside him Rose shifted, patient, silent. She wanted to go home.

See you tomorrow, Rose

I love you, Rob.

Robert sipped his coffee. He should say something. He should stop her. But, Jesus, she looked spent…. Rob glanced at his sister, though the sweep of her strawberry hair, but he couldn’t see her face. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. Robert signaled for the check. It was time to take her home.

“More coffee?”

Robert paused.

The waiter poured.

One more cup. He wasn’t ready yet.

###

Wish that kid would quit staring and do his job. Goddamn coffee’s cold.

Across the diner, Charlie hunched over the counter, like a bulldog over a bone. He eyed the yellow-haired waiter, who was eyeing the redheaded girl. Like staring was going help. A gal like that never left her man, not if he beat her into the ground. After thirty years he knew.

Charlie rubbed his bum knee. He wished he could sleep. He hadn’t slept since he’d retired. Not a full eight hours. Not in a month. Way to go Charlie. Retirement—you lucky son-of-a-bitch….

Yeah. Real lucky.

Charlie leaned back into the diner chair, and thought about what he’d retired to. He hated fishing, hated crosswords. His buddies were still on the force. Doris was remarried and Katie was busy, making a life of her own. She’d even gotten a job—secretary at some firm. Smart girl. Katie had always been smart. Maybe not pretty, but smart. He could hear Doris telling her to dress up nice for work. Christ, he wished Doris would shut-up.

Charlie shot the waiter a look and softly clacked his cup. The kid strolled over, refilled it from the urn and handed it back to him. Up close, Charlie realized, the kid wasn’t much of a kid. Mid-twenties maybe. Charlie grunted. At twenty-six, he’d been on the force for five years. Guy should get a real job.

Charlie looked out the diner’s plate-glass window at the dark, disinterested street. Good pension. Big thanks. What did you do when you got cut loose? What the hell did you do? Kid’s got his whole life and he wastes it, like it’s something to toss away. Charlie shifted on the narrow seat. He was starting to hate that kid….

He should probably head home. It was a long walk back to his place. Maybe that would wear him out. He reached for his wallet, straining the seams of his suit. Cheap suit. Work suit. He took out his Luckies instead. One cigarette. One more cup. Then he’d toss a buck on the counter and take the long walk home. Back to his apartment. He hated that apartment. He hated the way it looked—half empty, full of nothing, like old newsprint. He hadn’t seen it that way before. He hadn’t had time—he’d barely ever been home. Now he saw every night. Charlie sipped his coffee, sucking it slowly between his teeth.

Christ, he wished he could sleep.

###

That lady looks sick. Joe glanced up from a tray of half-empty saltshakers. What’s she doing out so late with that guy, anyway? She looks like she should be in a hospital or something….

Joe shook his head and refilled the shakers without taking his eyes off the lady in the dark pink dress. He was good at working and watching. He never spilled.

Look at how she’s holding his arm, he thought. Like she’s gonna drown and he’s the only thing keeping her afloat.

Joe stopped pouring and wiped off his hands. That was good. He had to write that down.

He loved working the late shift. Nothing like it for writer’s block. Nothing like it for inspiration. The lady and her fella were great. He had to use them somewhere…maybe he’d put her in a sanitarium and make the guy her lover. And the guy… a private eye with a shady past? Maybe he broke her out and now they’re on the run. However Joe wrote it, it was gonna be tragic. That lady was tragic all over.

Joe glanced across the counter at the old guy with the coffee habit, sitting on his own. He wasn’t as compelling but he’d find his way in too. Maybe a crime boss or a has-been reporter. Joe studied the man nursing his twelve-hundredth cup. Thickset. Stubborn face. Angry mug. No. He was the woman’s father. Iron fist with heart of gold.

The old guy shot Joe a belligerent look.

Skip the heart of gold.

Joe shrugged. Even after he’d sold the novel, he’d still work the graveyard shift. He loved the diner at night. Nothing like it for writer’s block. Nothing like it for inspiration.

Joe pulled out a pen. Down the counter, the man paid the tab and helped the lady up. She stumbled. He caught her. Joe bent over his notes. He barely looked up as they left.

THE END

The Virgin & the Whore Walk Into a Bar

Modern daguerreotype. Image courtesy thedaglab.com for The VIrgin and the Whore Walked into a Bar post by Malin James

Modern daguerreotype courtesy The Dag Lab

As you can see, I haven’t posted here in awhile. This isn’t from laziness or lack or commitment. Rather, it’s the product of a happy fact–I’m super busy with work on the other side of my career, (that would be the smutty side, for those who don’t know). Posts on this blog will probably be fairly sporadic for the next little while, or at least until I finish the massive project that is my novel. That said, they will pop up as I can manage. In the meantime, you can take a peek at what my erotica writing alter ego, Malin James, is up to here. Or not.. It’s totally up to you.

Which brings me to the virgin and the whore. I’ve always loved that paradox, mostly because I’ve always felt like both–the virgin and the whore, I mean. I am equally comfortable eating ice cream with my daughter and writing articles about the death of the Dewey Decimal System, (this is a greatly contested death, FYI), as I am doing and writing any number of things that I’m not going to mention here because my mother reads this blog. Of course, you can always check out the following to get a sense of what I mean: link, link, link. Click at your own risk.

There’s a common notion that a person is one particular thing–a mother, a teacher, a daughter, a parent, a slut, a virgin, a whore…you get the picture. I would contest this notion though. I think that, much as Meredith Brooks sang in her song, “Bitch,” (what a rockin’ good title), most of us are both sinners and saints. It’s only when we get too attached to one static identity that things get complicated and often unfulfilling.

Yes, I’m a mother and, I hope, a good one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write things that would make my own mother supremely uncomfortable, (sorry mom–definitely don’t click those links). It doesn’t mean that I can’t have an identity outside of motherhood that many might find unorthodox at best, and somewhat distasteful at worst.

After years of wrestling and apologizing, the fact is that there’s a lot of dark in me–there’s anger and sex and rage and violence. But there’s also a lot of light. I’m nurturing and empathic. I’ve got compassion on tap. These things should be in violent contrast. They shouldn’t be able to coexist, and yet they do, quite naturally, in me, just as they do in most people. All you have to do is choose the two, (or three, or four), contrasting archetypes that resonate with you.

Of course, nothing is never as simple or easy as that. But that’s sort of my point–personalities aren’t static things. They are constantly in motion, acting and reacting. Really, when it gets down to it, personalities are simply a series of reactions, habituated over time. So, the virgin and the whore are part of who I am, and it’s only in cultivating both of them equally that I can truly be whole.

I wanted to give a quick, but very sincere thank you to Eric Mertens at The Dag Lab for letting me use one of his beautiful images in this post. You can see more of his work by clicking here. Mr. Merten does old-fashioned daguerreotype portraits in his lab in Oakland, CA. The work is gorgeous. Please, go check it out. 

On Style in Prose

Letter & CoffeeI’ve been writing for about 11 years now, and I can honestly say that it’s only been in the past 2 that I’ve begun to find my style… Or rather, styles, because I have several – it just depends on what I’m writing.

For the first 8 years of that 11, I was terrifically preoccupied with finding “my style”. What I didn’t realize at the time was that you have to be able to write first. Hemingway didn’t start off sounding like Hemingway. You can see hints of  Papa’s style in his early novels, but his authorial voice was still in the developmental stages until it peaked with “The Killers” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” Unfortunately, Hemingway also demonstrates the danger of being too wedded to any one style – later in his career, he fell off the ledge into self-parody… Please don’t hate me fans of Hemingway.

What I failed to realize as a young writer is that, in much the same way that a teenager is a human work in progress, a new writer isn’t fully formed until she gets some experience, (i.e.: shitty stories and lots of rejection), under her belt. The idea that I would have to live through tons of rejection, and that every story I wrote for years would be nothing more than a learning experience terrified and daunted me 11 years ago. Luckily, I’m incredibly stubborn…and I really love to write. So I plowed ahead through all that shittiness until my writer-self began to grow up.

It was a long and painful process – not just for me, but for the people who valiantly read 10th, 20th and 25th revisions, (I’m not kidding), of a stories that were never going to work – not because I’d used the work “enamored” twice on one page, but because the damn things just didn’t have a plot. It took awhile to figure that out, (sorry valiant people), but as soon as I did, things started to fall into place.

And that’s when I realized that a writer’s style is really just a reflection of the writer’s personality. Very often it’s surprisingly subtle. Word choice is part of it, sure, but even more than that, it’s the quirks and humor and punch and flow that form your sentences. It’s the way you turn a phrase. It’s the “sound” of your writing, the rhythmic rise and fall in your tension and pacing – that’s not something you can force, nor is it something you can develop on purpose. It just has to come. In other words, don’t ask the caterpillar how it walks – it’ll trip all over itself. Just let the little guy do his thing.

When it comes down to it, style is just one more lens through which to read a writer’s work. And yes, it is important. That said, it’s also something that works itself out. You don’t need to worry about finding it – if you give it enough time, it will find you.

On Burning Your Boats

When I decided to move to writing full time, I did so with the caveat that if anything really promising in librarianship came up, I would do it and write part-time again, which means that my choice to write full time was always, in some way conditional – I had a sort of mental escape hatch that allowed me to do the frightening thing and write while still feeling like I had a safety net.

About two months ago, I was approached about a contract position in a library, which definitely qualified as “something exciting”. On the surface, the opportunity made a lot of sense. It was a part-time situation that would net a decent, very stable income and replace the worry and comparative instability of freelancing. Score. I would work in the library part time and write part time. The family schedule would be “interesting” (meaning INSANE), but it overall, that would be okay because everything else would be good… except for the fact that I would lose some traction on current WIP’s and projects… and that  the idea never quite settled right with me. At all.

Last week interviews and phone meetings were scheduled for the position. This week would basically be spent talking to people and deterring the terms of the contract. Should have been exciting, right? But it wasn’t. I just felt vaguely sick. I couldn’t focus on the writing I had to do – I was too preoccupied by the fact that soon I would have far less time to work.. meaning write.

So, after much debate, I just sent a series of very nice emails saying thanks but no thanks to the contract. You’d think that torching that safe little boat would be empowering or, at the very least, kind of fun. It wasn’t not. It was very gently terrifying, because it meant that now I’m doing this. No safety net. No back-up. This is it. I’m a writer – not a writer on condition – and that means I need to up my game and kick some serious ass. Seriously.

On the flip side, it feels good to have a challenge to rise to. I’ve never done the safe thing, though it’s never been from lack of trying – safe was always a siren song, even as I auditioned for play after play, all while trying to figure out how to be an actor *and* have a stable, routine life. Ha.

It was that trying to be safe that kept the risks I took from paying off. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m taking an unabashed, no-holding back risk. And I’m free – from myself and the little demon that whispered in my ear. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe. 

Sometimes, safe isn’t really that safe, not if it isn’t honestly safe, and my pursuit of safety, and my inability to see a risk through was never honest. It was always based in fear. So now, my boats are finally burning and that little safety demon can go straight to hell. In declining the contract position, I finally sent it there, and that does feel good.

Agnes, The Maid

This is a short portrait / character sketch. Sometimes it happens that I get a character without a story. Usually it’s a character I quite like and will come back to later, either in their own piece, or as a tertiary character somewhere else. Agnes is one of these characters…

Agnes, The Maid

No one used a feather duster like Agnes. The command with which she wielded a batch of feathers shoved into a stick was truly terrifying. Even the mistress stayed

out of her way, not daring to test the sideboard after Agnes had been through.

Agnes was a narrow sort of woman, rather like an obelisk, with an air of authority that made her seem far taller than she actually was. Even as a child in the first blushes of youth, there had been little of the girl and even less of the blush about her. She was made of serious stuff. Lest you forget, the line of her mouth would remind you, before her shoulders squared off like a coat rack, and she took up arms against the dust.

Serious as she’d been as a girl, Agnes had had hopes – hopes that had been dashed quite early on in her career as a person. As a girl she had wanted to join the cavalry and go to war like her father, who’d been a sergeant in the Boer Wars. When her father had informed her that daughters did not join the cavalry, that this honor was only for sons, and that even if they did join the cavalry, his daughter would certainly not, Agnes had cried for hours. It was the last time in her life she would cry.

Finally, touched by his daughter’s rare show of emotion, Agnes’s father relented upon one nonnegotiable condition. If she were determined to go join the army, it would be the infantry for her. No “prancing about on ponies” – not for his girl. She would charge into war like a man. Though she was by no means un-heroic, the “ponies” had rather been the point. But her father would not be moved. She joined domestic service instead. Agnes never forgot her dream though. It was her one great disappointment. It would affect her, subtly, for years.

Despite her lowly role as maid, she wore her uniform with military precision. The sheer force of her personality endowed her ruffled cap with an air of authority, as if the cap knew itself to be overly frilly, and had tried to sharpen up. She took orders and conveyed orders with the bearing of a much older person. And, of course, the house had never been so utterly free of dust.

Agnes rose efficiently through the ranks to head housemaid after only two years, and it was assumed that when the housekeeper retired, Agnes would take up the helm. With the confidence of authority, Agnes felt this to be true. She was, after all, a nearly perfect servant. Her only flaw was the aggression with which she dusted the house. It called to mind a general, spitting on enemy armies before crushing them in his, (or her), wake.